On Saturday, May 15, 1971, a cloud of tear gas poured out of an elevator door into The Daily Californian’s main office, then on the sixth floor of Eshleman Hall. Hours before, a party at People’s Park had escalated into a riot that spilled onto Telegraph Avenue and spread onto the UC Berkeley campus.
In a controversial editorial published four days earlier, the Daily Cal’s editorial board called for the event to commemorate the two-year anniversary of “Bloody Thursday,” a 1969 clash between police and protesters at People’s Park that left one dead and many others wounded. The fallout of the incendiary article would garner national attention in the days and weeks to follow and mark the beginning of the Daily Cal’s 50-year status as a fully independent student newspaper.
Jim Blodgett, managing editor of the Daily Cal at the time, had penned the controversial editorial Monday of that week. It began with an invitation: “You are invited to a party this Saturday.”
Though it called for a peaceful assembly, the editorial also implicitly encouraged readers to take down the fence around the park that the university had put up nearly two years earlier.
“We don’t intend to provoke any violence because we think it doesn’t take any violence to pull down a fence,” the editorial read. “Nothing so flimsy as a fence can stand up to the will of the community.”
On Monday night, the five-person editorial board approved the piece in a split vote of 3-2. Editorial page editor Dave Dozier, lower staff representative Fran Hawthorne and Blodgett voted in favor of running the piece. Then-editor in chief John Emshwiller and city editor Trish Hall were opposed.
“There was a certain underlying belief that nobody much read the Daily Cal editorials,” Emshwiller said. “I’m not sure that we gave as much thought to the consequences as we should have.”
Following its front-page appearance the next day, the editorial drew widespread criticism from the UC Board of Regents and then-California governor Ronald Reagan, among others.
Throughout the week, the Daily Cal published subsequent editorials meant to walk back some of the language from the original and reiterate the paper’s commitment to maintaining peace at the party. Some of the newspaper’s staff, including Hawthorne and Emshwiller, signed a minority editorial apologizing for the controversy.
And then the day came.
On the morning of May 15, Daily Cal staff and others arrived at People’s Park with refreshments and passed out leaflets requesting that attendees “keep cool” if police intervened. Despite their best efforts, however, “Party at People’s Park” soon degraded into a confrontation with police that lasted for several hours and resulted in more than 40 arrests.
Sections of the fence surrounding the park were torn down. Rioters threw rocks and bottles at police. Officers dispersed the crowd of several hundred people with “stun putty” and tear gas.
Reports surfaced of police tossing tear gas canisters into the Eshleman Hall elevators and pressing the button for the sixth floor, according to a Daily Cal article published the following day.
“We’re back at the office, and I’m contemplating a rather abrupt end to my journalism career which hadn’t yet started,” Emshwiller said. “All of a sudden, this elevator door opens on the sixth floor of the student union building, and clouds of tear gas come out. I guess it was sort of a ‘thank you’ for that day’s events.”
Within days, the Daily Cal’s publisher’s board called a hearing, voting to suspend all publication and fire Dozier, Blodgett and Hawthorne for voting in favor of the editorial. Emshwiller and Hall resigned in protest of the firings.
On May 19, the Daily Cal published yet another editorial, this one under the headline “We Won’t Quit.” In it, the publication rejected the firings and the authority of the publisher’s board while vowing to continue publishing the news.
“We said we’d just keep publishing the newspaper,” Dozier said. “It wasn’t a sustainable strategy, but in the parlance of our time, it was our way of saying, ‘Go fuck yourselves.’”
Over the course of several meetings with the publisher’s board, talk surfaced of a separation between the newspaper and campus. By May 25, the Daily Cal had moved to elect a new editorial board.
Toni Martin, the newly elected editor in chief of the Daily Cal, said she ran for the position on a platform of independence from the campus because it “seemed like the only path to continue unfettered as the free press.”
Following a series of late-night negotiations with the chancellor’s office, the Daily Cal was able to retain the name it had kept for 100 years, and campus committed to buying 10,000 subscriptions, establishing financial support for the publication. The Daily Cal soon moved into an off-campus office space on Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street.
During her tenure, Martin worked to steer the Daily Cal away from the charged “vernacular of the revolution” and toward improving the paper’s relationships with local businesses to bolster ad revenue.
“We wanted to be a newspaper — a newspaper who had credibility,” Martin said. “We had a history, and if we wanted to have a future, we had to do it according to the book.”
Nearly 50 years later, the Daily Cal continues to operate both financially and editorially independent from UC Berkeley. It is the only student newspaper in the UC system to do so.